Teaching Essay Writing in Pyongyang


Journalist Suki Kim’s been making the rounds lately, touting her book  Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite on various media outlets. Her book and the stories it contain from inside the “Hermit Kingdom” have garnered incredible response from the public, but it was one particular excerpt published on Slate, Teaching Essay Writing in Pyongyang, that caught my attention. (Typical EAP teacher! Though it caught the attention of man others too; at the time of posting, the article had 600 comments.)

To sum up the excerpt, she has trouble teaching her students to write 5-paragraph essays, because they are not used to evidence-based writing. She is also surprised and amused by the national myths and propaganda regarding both North Korea and the United States that her students spout as fact.

Not to sound blasé or anything, but all I wanted to say to Kim while reading this article was “Welcome to the club, honey!” Teaching evidence-based writing, research, critical thinking and citation skills is tough and many students struggle with it, be they high schoolers, undergraduates in composition and writing classes, or English-learners in EAP contexts. Kim’s students’ difficulty with writing an introduction and a “hook” for their essays is nothing new; intercultural differences in rhetoric pose a challenge to many students’ adaptation to the Anglo-Saxon/English-language academic writing style. It’s not unique to North Korea and Korean speakers. Learners of English from many language and cultural backgrounds struggle with the structural particularities of academic essay writing.

Her reaction to her students’ beliefs about the United States, as well as those about their own country are also a bit overblown. Kim’s portrayal of her students as brainwashed by nationalist propaganda seems unfair to me. While there are obvious differences in the climate of freedom of speech in North Korea and the US, if you asked a random selection of American undergraduates their beliefs and opinions on certain foreign countries they’d never visited, I’m sure you’d get some pretty inaccurate (and maybe offensive) stuff. And every country has national myths that can be difficult to dispel, even in instances when they’ve been shown or found to be completely untrue.

In my opinion, Kim puts way too much cultural and political significance on her students’ very typical undergraduate writing problems. For example:

Their entire system was designed not to be questioned and to squash critical thinking. So the form of an essay, in which a thesis had to be proven, was antithetical to their entire system. The writer of an essay acknowledges the arguments opposing his thesis and refutes them. Here, opposition was not an option.

I stared across at him and felt a familiar sick feeling. Perhaps this was only the beginning. The questions they would have. The questions they should be asking. The questions they would realize they had not been asking because they did not imagine they could, or because asking meant that they could no longer exist in their system.

Gimme a break! Essays are weird! You’ve spent your whole life reading articles, novels, and other texts NOT in essay format, and suddenly, you’re told to write something completely foreign in form. Having trouble learning to write a brand new textual genre doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s going through a politico-existential crisis. If a student drops the word final “-ed” on a regular verb in the simple past tense, it’s not a statement about a preference to live in the “now” and eschew a life focused on nostalgia and past regrets; they just didn’t use the correct grammar.

Everyone who teaches academic writing in one way or another could share anecdotes like Kim’s. The North American fascination with North Korea is be the only reason that her book is a #1 bestseller, in my opionion.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Essay Writing in Pyongyang

  1. Great post! I am so happy someone wrote about this.
    I commented on twitter that her piece said about as much about the author as it did about the students (or how different they are…). I also thought a lot of what she was talking about was pretty much the teachers job. I’ve had South Korean students who have no idea how to cite in the way I’d deem appropriate.

    Thanks for writing this!

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